Rugby: Sir Clive Woodward admits selection errors on 2005 Lions tour

Lions five-eighth Jonny Wilkinson during the second test match against the All Blacks in 2005. Photo/Photosport
Lions five-eighth Jonny Wilkinson during the second test match against the All Blacks in 2005. Photo/Photosport

I can, without fear of contradiction, claim to be the last coach to pick a Lions tour party for New Zealand.

It was a slightly surreal experience, sitting down over a cup of tea to repeat that exercise, this time - for fun, rather than for real.

Not quite so stressful.

As everybody knows, things went badly for us in 2005 against an outstanding New Zealand side and I would be the first to acknowledge that I got some selections wrong.

Selection is an art, not a science, but it is the No 1 job of the coach. Bad injuries, bad luck and great opponents will all come into play, but if you get your core selection right, you have a chance.

The most important criteria of all are current fitness and form. Nobody should be selected on reputation in the hope that he comes good. That was a mistake I made in 2005 with several players, including Jonny Wilkinson.

On his 2003 form, Jonny was the first name on the 2005 Lions team-sheet, but he had been beset by injury and had played no test rugby in between.

Yes, when I selected him, Jonny was, for that short period, injury free and had played a few games for Newcastle, but that is a million miles away from being match fit and ready take on the All Blacks.

I had this dream of a midfield of Jonny at 12 and Brian O'Driscoll at 13, which I felt was key to us really challenging the All Blacks, but it was wishful thinking on my part and unfair on Jonny, who really tried everything he could to be ready.

Lions coach Clive Woodward addresses the press at the Hilton Hotel, Auckland. Photo/Photosport
Lions coach Clive Woodward addresses the press at the Hilton Hotel, Auckland. Photo/Photosport

We also lost Brian in the first minute of the first test. The nearest I've ever got to working in earnest with this dream team was in the ITV studios during the recent Six Nations!

It was a painful lesson and if I was involved 12 years on, I would base the selection pretty much on the Six Nations, with the recent European Cup quarter-finals as a final top-up.

Everybody who gets on the plane must be 100 per cent fit and ready to go. New Zealand just is not the place for anybody who is not totally on top of their game.

Having said that, we have two particular situations that need a little flexibility. George Kruis is poised to return for Saracens after a long lay-off, while Sam Warburton has developed a knee ligament problem that needs six weeks' rehab.

Kruis is absolutely the type of second row the Lions need in New Zealand, and with Saracens involved at the sharp end of the European Cup and Premiership, he will have a chance to prove his fitness and form before the Lions depart.

I would leave a space for him in the squad on Wednesday, but if he doesn't play to Warren Gatland's satisfaction over the next month or so, he should be withdrawn. Heaven knows, it's one area where the Lions aren't exactly lacking!

After a fine Six Nations, Warburton is my tour captain and a nailed-on test starter, and if the medics are correct, he would be fit to play in the tour opener on June 3. But as a back-up, I would take an additional flanker, which is again an area of huge strength for the Lions.

Warburton has shown previously that he comes back with a bang after injuries, but if there is any doubt about his form during the tour, you simply make the call and omit him from the first test. In that scenario, Owen Farrell should captain the team.

I would, though, have Dylan Hartley as hooker.

The optimum size of a modern-day tour party to New Zealand is a big subject, which I will return to at length, but I would definitely have asked the Lions committee to extend the accepted 37 to a minimum of 39 to cover for the likes of Warburton.

Don't forget, we already know that Warren's squad will leave without a raft of frontline players at the start of the first week, who will be arriving later from the Premiership and Pro 12 play-off finals.

It shows rugby in a very poor light that those finals weren't brought forward.

I would also emphasise the key role of the nominated reserves. History shows us that there is every chance of a reserve not only joining the squad, but even making the test team - Martin Johnson in 1993, Ryan Jones and Simon Easterby in 2005.

That's how it goes sometimes.

The reserves need to be fully motivated and I would ask them to be part of all the pre-tour meetings and the week together, before the main party departs. Psychologically that could be hard, but selfless teamwork is one of the things that can make this Lions squad successful.

All four Home Unions are touring with powerful squads. Scotland in Australia and Wales in the South Pacific are particularly well placed for those immediate calls, and I'm sure Warren will keep in close touch with all the coaches.

Of course, it's a disruption, but it's for a common purpose, giving the Lions every chance on the toughest tour of all.

Back Three

Stuart Hogg (Sco), Leigh Halfpenny (Wal), Liam Williams (Wal), George North (Wal), Anthony Watson (Eng), Chris Ashton (Eng). Reserve: Tommy Seymour (Sco)

Five automatic selections for me - Hogg is an exceptional talent, Halfpenny's kicking is still top class, Williams has done well against New Zealand, North is a world beater when fully on his game and Watson is a blazing talent.

The sixth spot did make me ponder - the all-round reliability of a Seymour or Jack Nowell, the proven year-on-year try-scoring nous of Ashton or the little bit of X-factor Simon Zebo can bring?

It was a close call, but I just fancy the force is with Ashton right now. He scores tries for fun.

Outside Centre

Jonathan Joseph (Eng), Garry Ringrose (Ire), Elliot Daly (Eng)

Good strength here. Jonathan Joseph - brilliant one day, not so brilliant the next - and the hugely promising Garry Ringrose, while I remain convinced Elliot Daly could also come steaming through.

Daly does, of course, also provide expert cover for the back three. He is just the kind of player you need on tour.

Scotland's Huw Jones would undoubtedly have figured, but for injury.

Inside Centre

Robbie Henshaw (Ire), Jonathan Davies (Wal). Reserve: Alex Dunbar (Sco)

OK, I'm assuming Owen Farrell is the first choice 12, but I am going to list him at No 10 for reasons I will explain. Henshaw is the next best 12, but he is a very different player to Farrell, while Dunbar is another strong contender.

I am however very reluctant to leave Davies out. He is playing well enough, without tearing trees down, and New Zealand will galvanise him.

Fly-Half

Johnny Sexton (Ire), Owen Farrell (Eng), George Ford (Eng). Reserve: Dan Biggar (Wal)

I'm listing Farrell at 10, although all being well, he will start at 12 in the test team, with Sexton the fly-half. If Sexton gets injured, Farrell will switch to 10.

They are very similar players with complete skill sets and very flinty edges in defence. -
like for like. It also gives you the flexibility of not needing to pick a 10 on the bench.

As back-up, I'm going for Ford, who brings something different.

Scrum-Half

Conor Murray (Ire), Rhys Webb (Wal), Ben Youngs (Eng). Reserve: Greig Laidlaw (Sco)

Murray and Webb pick themselves. Murray has arguably been Europe's player of the season and is favourite to start the tests.

I like Webb, he's a ball of energy, with attitude.

New Zealand have two world class No 9s in Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, and the Lions need to match them there.

A very close call for the third spot. Youngs at his best is a lovely attacking nine and he's in ... just.

Loosehead Prop

Jack McGrath (Ire), Joe Marler (Eng), Mako Vunipola (Eng). Reserve: Cian Healy (Ire)

Not a massively difficult selection. McGrath has been in very good form for Ireland recently and is keeping out a class player like Healy, so he is the market leader, closely followed by the England duo of Vuniploa and Marler, who deputised excellently when Vunipola was injured in the Six Nations and rediscovered his mojo.

Both are worth a place in my party.

Hooker

Rory Best (Ire),Dylan Hartley (Eng), Ken Owens (Wal). Reserve: Jamie George (Eng)

The big question is whether to pick Hartley above George. I would every time - and that's no slight on George.

He has a big future but he's not quite there yet.

Everybody on tour must be capable of starting all three tests. Hartley fits that category - he started all 18 matches in England's record-equalling run.

Tighthead Prop

Tadhg Furlong (Ire), Dan Cole (Eng), Tomas Francis (Wal). Reserve: Zander Fagerson (Sco)

Again, not too much midnight oil burned here.

Furlong has been a revelation at the set-piece and in the tight. He was a winner against New Zealand in the autumn and a big player for Ireland, when they beat England last month.

He travels as the first choice, with the reliable Cole to press for test selection, while the burly Francis just shades the promising Fagerson for third spot.

Lock

Alun Wyn Jones (Wal), George Kruis (Eng), Maro Itoje (Eng), Iain Henderson (Ire), Joe Launchbury (Eng). Reserve: Devin Toner (Ire)

This wasn't easy. I've gone for the best athletes, who also have a stack of attitude and physicality, because they will need it.

Kruis and Itoje are England's premier pairing when fit, Henderson played his way in with a barnstorming performance against England.

I am painfully aware this is very tough on Toner, the Gray brothers and Courtney Lawes, who would make most Lions tour parties.

Flanker

Sam Warburton (Wal), Justin Tipuric (Wal), CJ Stander (Ire), Sean O'Brien (Ire), Peter O'Mahony (Ire), Ross Moriarty (Wal). Reserve: John Barclay (Sco)

Your back-row players are in the front line down in New Zealand. That is where the battle is fiercest and the attrition rate can be high and, given the Warburton injury scenario, I would include six flankers in the squad.

Warburton and Tipuric pick themselves really, but as a litmus test I asked myself "would they improve the world-record equalling England team?" The answer was yes.

The Irish boys are also on fire. Sean O'Brien has had some big injuries, but he now seems back to his very best and he will love it in New Zealand.

Stander is so strong and O'Mahony is a tough case and top lineout operator. Barclay should keep his mobile on though.

No 8

Billy Vunipola (Eng), Toby Faletau (Wal). Reserve: Jamie Heaslip (Ire)

Very little discussion needed. Both Vunipola and Faletau have had big injuries this season but both are back and firing on all four cylinders. They have the power to really hurt the Kiwis. Heaslip has a proud Lions record and will slip straight in if required.

- Daily Mail

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